There is a moment in the second half of the 1981 FA Cup final when Gerry Gow, the Manchester City midfielder, winks at a Tottenham fan after a crunching tackle on Ossie Ardiles.

The supporter is not a face in the crowd, you must understand. He's two feet away from Gow and he's trying to square up to him having vaulted Wembley's perimeter fence and dodged the assembled police.

It's a vignette that just about sums up Gow, a combative, all-action Glaswegian who donned the red of Bristol City for 11 years before swapping it late on in his career for the sky blue of Manchester. Hated by supporters of the teams he played against and adored – maybe even something stronger – by those he featured for, he cut an instantly recognisable figure on and off the pitch.

He looked like a Mexican bandit – sporting a Zapatista-style moustache and long hair in tight ringlets – and he played up to the part of dastardly villain. His Weegie snarl and anvil-like tackling made teenage debutants quake in their boots and more grizzled opponents check twice when receiving a pass. But there was a more genteel side to Gow; the one his family, friends and neighbours knew, the character punters and supporters would approach in the pub for a friendly chat.

Gow left Drumchapel in 1969 at the age of 17 but Drumchapel never really left him. There was the time on an end of season tour of Greece that Gerry and his Bristol City team-mate Donnie Gillies – a fellow Scot – refused to pay the couple of Drachmas required to walk through a private beach in order to meet up with the rest of the squad. Instead they decided to swim across to the pontoon on which their team-mates were relaxing with a couple of beers.

His Glaswegian parsimony – that deep sense of offence at having to pay for something unnecessary – almost killed him, his mates diving in to rescue him as he started to submerge under the water. On the same trip, he vomited over the side of the hotel balcony after a heavy session and had to hide in a bar from the unfortunate victim. Then there was the time Gow squared up to one of the Shah of Iran's right-hand men and accused him of cheating him and his team-mates out of a win bonus. Gerry's dad had been a dockworker, the militancy of the shop-floor was ingrained in him.

Fiercely patriotic, he nevertheless left Scotland for Bristol City because he felt England was the place to prove oneself as a footballer. He had idolised Billy Bremner as he was growing up but when it came to facing him in two FA Cup ties for City against Leeds in 1974 he remarked “Bremner will be s******g himself coming to play against me”.

The enforcers proceeded to kick lumps out of each other in those matches. Norman Hunter, an opponent then but a future team-mate of Gow's at Ashton Gate, would later say that he was every bit as good as Bremner.

So why is his name relatively unknown today? Well, he spent most of his career at an unfashionable club. Joe Royle, the legendary Everton striker, who played with Gow at City, says his career undoubtedly suffered as a result of remaining loyal to the Robins despite interest from Celtic, Manchester United and then high-flying Ipswich Town. He also battled chronic knee injuries during the latter part of his career, a product no doubt of his ferocious tackling.

For all of his tight-fisted penny-pinching on that beach in Spain there was a benevolence, too. When he left his beloved Bristol for Manchester in 1980, he surrendered his £20,000 signing on fee because the club was in financial difficulties.

A mixed league season for City was rescued by League and FA Cup runs: the former ended in defeat by Liverpool at the semi-final stage but the latter took City all the way to Wembley where they would face Tottenham Hotspur.

It's almost 40 years since the sides met in that final during which Gow dominated Spurs' storied midfield partnership of Ossie Ardiles and Glenn Hoddle, one a World Cup winner in 1978 and the other England's most naturally gifted player of the era.

City had been 10 minutes from lifting the cup in that initial game after Tommy Hutchison's flying header from 18 yards had given them a first-half lead. Gow had harried and hassled Ardiles and Hoddle for most of the game but it was his foul on the Argentine that led to the goal that would bring a barely deserved equaliser for Spurs when Hutchison – another Scot – diverted Hoddle's free-kick past Joe Corrigan in the City goal. It set up a replay that Spurs eventually won thanks to Ricky Villa's weaving wonder goal despite an equally outrageous effort by Steve MacKenzie, City's 19-year-old midfielder.

Had circumstances been different Gow might have been lining up for Spurs in those games. The Londoners' chief scout Ron Clayton had been a dogged pursuer of the teenage Gow but, in the end, Spurs opted for another young Scottish midfielder from Edinburgh and signed Graeme Souness instead.

Gow's story is documented in an illuminating new book by author Neil Palmer which outlines his career at both Citys, Rotherham United, Burnley and beyond. If his personal tale is one of persistence, single-minded determination to improve and plenty of high-jinks in pubs, the book's wider message is one that should resonate with all: Gow played in less jaundiced times.

The juxtaposition of tomorrow's Carabao Cup final containing two protagonists who – earlier this week – were part of a contemptible plot that threatened to tear the soul out of football, set against those cup finals of 40 years earlier is marked.

The 1981 FA Cup final replay was one of the competition's greatest matches, it contained two of its finest goals, but despite two further trophies in the 1980s for Tottenham, it was not the beginning of a period of domination for that club. Equally so for a City side which would be relegated three years later and would spend the next quarter of a century somewhere between purgatory and oblivion. Much has changed since then. City were bought by the Abu Dhabi royal family in 2008; Spurs, while not quite so flush, are owned by Britain's 34th richest man.

When the teams take to the pitch at the now-rebuilt Wembley late tomorrow afternoon – rekindling memories of an evening when two of English football most famous names played out one of its most memorable finals – it will feel like an awfully long time ago; not simply because of the passage of time but because of how grotesquely unrecognisable the game has become.

And a world away from that of Gerry Gow's, who was working in Tesco shortly before he died of lung cancer in 2016 at the age of 64.

The Gerry Gow Story is published by Pitch Publishing, priced £19.99